Using the Five-factor Model to Aid Characterization
While doing some research recently, I came across a fascinating talk by Jason VandenBerghe in which he adapts the Big Five personality traits, or the “five-factor model” (FFM), for game design purposes, proposing that one may be able to predict the types of gameplay experiences a player might gravitate toward based on their personality. While this is certainly useful in and of itself, it also gave me some ideas for how I could apply the model to writing characters for fiction or playing them in tabletop RPGs.
Many of the more well-known personality models out there are privately owned and often criticized as being unreliable, at best, and pseudoscientific, at worst. The FFM, on the other hand, is in the public domain, heavily researched, and generally accepted as accurate. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that its findings are less than sensational: in each of the five major traits, the human population is distributed across a bell curve. In other words, most people are average.
For example, on the extroversion scale, about 40% of people are neither especially introverted nor extroverted, but somewhere in between. Where one begins to become more distinctive as an individual is when they fall into the upper or lower 30%, making them more likely to be seen by their peers as especially extroverted or especially introverted, respectively. Even within those range bands, however, the model acknowledges that one person may be a bit more extroverted than another, even if they’re both “average.”
The model then achieves greater granularity by breaking down each of the five major traits into six facets, wherein the population is, again, distributed across a bell curve. As with the overarching traits, those who fall into the upper or lower 30% are seen as being high or low scorers in a given facet.
I recommend doing a bit of research on the FFM to gain a better understanding of what all the below terms mean and don’t mean in this context, as that’s beyond the scope of this article. For your reference, though, the list of traits and their facets is as follows:
- Activity Level
- Openness to Experience
- Artistic Interests
The thing about this model which caught my attention, and which inspired this article, is that most people are, in fact, average in a lot of areas, yet we tend not to describe their personalities that way if we’re trying to make useful distinctions. Instead, we focus on what about them is unique, whether it be one thing that stands out or some interesting or unusual combination of things. For instance: “She’s really shy, but super friendly once you get her talking” (low extroversion, high agreeableness), or, “He seems to have pretty wild mood swings. One day he’s energetic and loving life, the next he’s pissed off at everything and doesn’t seem to know how different he’s acting” (high cheerfulness, high anger, low emotionality).
This same principle applies in fiction. In order to keep the story moving at a reasonable pace, not even the protagonist will be a fully rounded, fleshed-out character. We’d get bored if they were. They are more rounded, however, than a relatively flat side character who only appears for a scene or two. As readers or viewers of a work, we don’t mind this. If we were to stop and think about it, we would, of course, understand everyone we see is a complex individual with their own personality and a lifetime’s worth of experiences. We just don’t need to know everything about someone for them to serve their purpose to the story.
And that’s where the FFM may come in handy. Authors (or roleplayers, who are storytellers of a different sort), will ideally have a better understanding of their characters than their audience. Much of the work they do developing their characters will never appear in the story, but it’s still important to do so their personalities and motivations seem believable when they do hit the page, or what have you. I’d suggest, therefore, that it may be a useful exercise to take a Big Five personality test (such as the free IPIP-NEO) “as” the character—responding to questions as the character in question would—and using the report to gain some useful insights into their personality.
As helpful as this may be on its own, however, I believe the report can be distilled further into a handy, quick-reference list of traits and facets one can use to portray a character either in a short span or on the fly. Again, because we tend to focus on what’s not average about someone’s personality, we might highlight what about a character is listed as not average, according to the report. In other words, we’d list anything that comes up as low or high, then draw those things out in the fiction to more effectively impress the character upon the audience. It may also be helpful, since they’re fewer and broader, to list all of the Big Five traits, whether they be low, average or high.
So, for example, if you wanted to portray me using this approach, you’d be looking at this list:
- Average extroversion
- High friendliness
- Low excitement-seeking
- Low cheerfulness (i.e., not prone to energetic, high spirits; depression falls under neuroticism)
- High agreeableness
- High trust
- High morality (candid, straightforward, and sincere when dealing with others; low morality, in this case, would not necessarily mean immorality)
- High cooperation
- High sympathy
- High conscientiousness
- High dutifulness
- High self-discipline
- High cautiousness
- Average neuroticism
- High anxiety
- High self-consciousness
- Average openness to experience
- High imagination
Now, if I was the protagonist of a story, and it was relatively long, the author may end up hitting all these points before the end. If I was more of a side character, though, they might just pick out a few of these, and which ones would depend on what my importance is to the story. There’s also the additional challenge, of course, of figuring out how to effectively get these traits across without being too blatant, but that’s another subject entirely.
At the very least, though, this approach provides something to refer to when one wonders how a character might react to something that happens in the narrative, assuming they don’t instinctively know, as the author, what would be best. And that’s is an important point to make, in conclusion: that this approach is nothing more than a tool. Just as personality report can never fully capture the complexity of a living, thinking, feeling human being, sometimes what’s best for a story is for a character to do or become something that, even to the author, is unexpected—for them to change as the result of what’s happened to and around them throughout the narrative. And change, in the end, is what good stories are all about.